Monday, November 17, 2014

Getting away with a Cake

The Cake.
It makes it's sweet, iced appearance on almost every occasion nowadays.

Birthdays of course are a must.
What's a birthday without a cake and the customary smearing.

At work, promotions see cakes being sliced.
Clients say a thank you with cakes.
Agencies say a thank you with cakes.
Cakes do allow for creativity.

At home, anniversaries must have a cake.
The red velvet or black forest make their appearance on Indian festivals as well.
Proudly grabbing centre stage at the dining table.

There is something about cakes.
We can express ourselves.
Or not express ourselves.

Everyone loves a slice.
The layers.
The fondant.
The toppings.
The sugar dust.

The person who cuts the cake is usually the star of the occasion.
The birthday child, the proud team, the happy couple, the jubilant parents.
There is always room for a speech, a few words, some kisses, some hugs.

But when cakes make their appearance at farewells, it leaves me wondering.
What is a person supposed to say when you cut a cake before saying goodbye.

Or maybe, a cake always does do the talking.....

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Back Pack

Had a house cleaning service come over and give the house  the long overdue cleaning.
As the young men started going about their work, I saw them in a corner.

A stack of back packs neatly in a row.
Black. Red. Black with a blue stripe. Red with a green patch.

There was a time when we saw plastic packets half rolled, carrying their lunch boxes, and a few personal belongings  needed for the day.
These packets were usually white with the name of the trader printed in bold blue.
Sharma and Sons. Raju Sarees and Dress Material.
Or some jute bags that we called "Muna" in Assamese.
Or in some cases a "jhola"- that even stereotyped people.

The Back Pack stands for so many things.
To start with, attitude.
The posture of swinging a back pack over your shoulder itself shows confidence.
Easier mobility.
Cues of travel.
Of someone who is outdoors, up and about.
Back Packs are great levellers.
They stand for a dynamic nation- not content with what they can earn , but with what they can dream of  and achieve.

For stepping out.
Of traditional jobs, roles, lives.

I said thank you to the team that worked all day and made my home a sparkling one.
They changed out of their work clothes, swung their packs  over their backs and walked off.

Made me realise how  some things are not just an accessory.
They are a bridge that makes us walk into the life we are striving for.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Dance Teacher

His name was Sarbeswar.
The clearest memory I have of him  is  him wheeling his black cycle up the hill  into our driveway in Digboi.
The winding lanes  had been made for  cars or hardy walkers and was not cycle friendly at all.
Which meant that Sarbeswar sir, as we called him,  had to really put in a lot of effort on that long climb uphill.

Sir would lean his cycle against the wall and walk up.
Maa would shout out- Sir is here.
Her loud voice  streamed through the walls and doorways into our room, where I would usually be buried in my favourite book.
I wasn't happy. Sir used to come on Friday afternoons, which meant I missed my swimming in summer and playing with my friends in winter.

But Maa wouldn't ever take no from me.
She was convinced that I had to be an all rounder.
And classical dance ticked the right box.
Both from talent as well as performance opportunities.

So I had to drop my book, wear my ghungroos and jingle my way into the guest room where Sarbeswar Sir would be gulping down a glass of water.
He had long hair, which fell in locks upto his shoulders.
One nail , the ring finger one , was exceptionally long.
He usually wore the same off white half sleeve shirt and a pair of black well worn trousers.

Sir stayed in the Naamghar ( Assamese place of community worship) in Shantipara, Digboi.
He was  trained in one of the Satras of Assam. The Vaishnavite monastries that are the centre of dharma and culture. As a Satriya dancer. The traditional Assamese classical dance.

His lodging and meals were taken care of by the Naamghar committee. But these lessons earned him his livelihood. He charged three hundred rupees for  coming home and teaching me how to dance.

And I danced.
Sir would teach me the steps- difficult ones- the hallmark of all classical dances where hand gestures, eye movements, the body and legs move in unison to paint a story.
Then he would sit on a chair and play the "khol"- a dholak, singing  along as I swayed and moved and turned and stopped, breathless.
After the class, he would gratefully sip the cup of tea and bite into the sandwich or biscuits served to him on a tray.

And I performed.
Maa ensured I was there on every stage that was set up in the oil town.
Always to a loud applause.

Sir would be in the wings, playing his khol in front of a microphone.
And his melodious voice would move my legs and my soul.

I learnt the power of expression.
The art of connecting with the audience.
Never to worry even if I missed a step.
To let go of all my fears.
To love what I did.
And to say a prayer of thanks before  the curtains went up.

We moved.
Lost touch with Sir.
Heard later that he had given up his Naamghar responsibilities and taken up a job as a clerk in the oil refinery.
Gave up dance classes.
It was not enough to give him his daily bread.

I realise today how much I owe what I am to Sarbeswar Sir.
He taught me that the spotlight and stage was never to be taken for granted.
It was a blessing. And I had to respect it.

I still do.
For Life is just a stage with spotlight moments.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Wishes from my Mother

"Results" day was never just another day.
Right from my school days to my last MBA results.

Mother would wake up early, sit with her morning cup of tea on our verandah.
I would join her there.
Few words, an occasional clasping of our hands.
Both of us nervous, in spite of our confidence.

The weeks before that would have seen us pay our visit to the Namghars and temples in Guwahati.
Offering our prayers to the Powers above.
One of the things that had kept my Mother, my sister and me going was Hope.
These visits would end up in a sweet shop where we would have tea and a savoury or sweet because we would have left the house without eating, before we offered our prayers.

On the "results" morning, my mother and me would leave the house early.
Mother always took leave from work.
The waiting.
The other parents.
The lists.
The mad rush to the board where the lists were put up.
Mother always there before me.
Usually before anyone else.

The frantic look at the top.
She would never think of searching the list.
The relief.
The joy.
The shout of happiness.
The hug.
The congratulations.
The phone calls she would start making when we reached home.
Stopping on the way for boxes of sweets for guests.
The excitement with which she shared the news with family.

Yes, Mother made "results" day always special.
Till seven years back, she was the first person I would call  whenever I achieved something at work.
And I knew she followed the  same "results" ritual though we were in distant cities.

I missed her this Friday when I received a recognition as Senior leadership at work.
As all the phone calls and emails flowed, I almost waited for that one call.
Wishing I had that number that could reach out to her.

Only later did I realise that she was speaking to me through everyone.
Every congratulation I got was also hers.
Every email had her touch.
The hugs had that same warmth.
The flowers I received were like the ones in her garden.

The ones we love are always around.
We just need to look.
And believe.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Repair the roof when the sun shines

Read this Kennedy quote today.
The best time to repair a leaking roof is when the sun shines.

Yet we leave it till it rains.
Then we do a rush job.
Make trade offs.
Think temporary.
Patch it up.
Stop the leaks without using the best of skill and material.
Sometimes, even a bucket below suffices.

Maybe that is why the leak remains.
It is something that comes back to haunt us again and again.

If we do the repair work when the sun shines, we can  think future.
Think long term.
Get the best of solutions.
Take strong steps- maybe rebuild the roof altogether.

Applies to life.
To work.
To everything we do.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Being Real

While technology is ruling our lives, we have also become numbers and dots on excel sheets, graphs and infographics.
What they call Big Data.

Marketing teams are  chasing big data, cutting and dissecting it into slices and pies.
Innovating, inventing, redefining, creating and communicating to these numbers and dots.

And doing it successfully.
Most of the time.

But how fast does big data on consumer lives' get refreshed?
Does it tell the florist that someone's mother has just passed away and that it is extremely painful to get texts asking her to send her mum a Happy Mother's Day card?
Does it tell the  retailer that the couple they send an anniversary gift card every year have split up in extremely painful circumstances?
What about the emailers from the sneaker brand to a person who has just lost both his legs in an accident?
Or the message to the fatally ill patient about making her family happy by going on that vacation this summer?

The friendly manager of the well know shoe brand ,back home, however, did know all of this.
So did the owner of the local sweet shop.
The doctor in the town hospital.
The family jeweler.
The priest.
The postman.

For them their customers were names.
Real people with families who rolled along life's roller coaster.
They knew how to console, cajole, persuade.
People they had conversations with.

This made them what they were.

Connecting with consumers is not just about blindly carpet bombing emailers and texts.
And appearing to be the friendly brand that cares.

It is about finding out ways of connections.
It is about behaving like real people do.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Re-Defining Life

We use this term quite often.
Especially at work.
We talk about change in perspective.
Change in rules.
Change in the game itself.

But somewhere, do we ask ourselves whether we have redefined anything in our lives?
Have we redefined the concept of relationships?
Our views on professionalism?
Our perspective on every day life itself?

I have tried redefining many things.
Starting with relationships. In Life and at work.
With teams.

For instance, focusing on the little things that make the biggest difference.
Talking only when it makes more sense than being silent.
Believing that personal growth can happen only if we consider the business we are in, as our own.
That leadership means first person responsibility.
That passion and emotion are the leading forces that redefine productivity.
That a relationship is one that goes beyond a paper. It is about trust, respect and love.
That building a personal brand shows our prowess in brand building.
That vulnerability and tears are part of my ways to express and not something to be ashamed of.

These are tiny steps and there is a long way to go.
But unless we give it a shot, re-define will always remain a jargon we use in our decks.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Learn.Live.See. Believe.

Sometimes we go through situations which initially make us bitter.
But as we wade through the tides and try and resolve, we may often have some experiences that leave us with a sweet after taste.

Maybe it is about knowing a person who helped us.
Maybe it is about changing perceptions about an organisation.
Could be a learning that will keep us better prepared or armored in the future.

So once the ordeal is over, we look back.
And then strangely, we see only the little good things that may have popped up.
While the memories of the not so good experience gradually vanish away.

That is Life.
Always holding our hand and saying- Learn. Live. See. Believe.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Yellow Pack

Don't know why I remembered this today.
It was 1983.
Digboi, Assam.

My mother came back from school ( she was a teacher in Carmel School) with something wrapped in a brown paper packet.
As my sister and I changed out of our summer blue and white uniform, I remember my mother change faster than usual  and then calling us into the kitchen.

On the kitchen table next to the gas burner was a yellow packet we had never seen before.
It was a Maggi Noodles.
Mother read the instructions carefully.
She said another teacher and her friend had brought this for us from Delhi.

She said we need a saucepan, I reached out for one drying out by the sink.
She then started reading the instructions aloud as she measured out the water in a cup.
My sister and I listened carefully.
Obviously mother wanted to get this right and we had to help her just in case she missed something.

They were ridiculously simple.
Just water, break the cake into four ( or was it two), snip open the masala satchet ( it was chicken).
But to us that day, it seemed like quite a task.

Then to our surprise, mother put the table clock which was usually at her bedside, next to the burner.
That was the day 2 minutes happened in our lives.

The second hand marches its way to  120 seconds. The minute hand glides over 2 small markings.
Gas turned off.
Two bowls out.
Mother ladling out.
We tasting.
Me asking mother to have some as well.
She spooning out whatever is left, onto a small saucer.
We tasting again.
We liking the taste.
Very much.
Wish we had more.

We walked back to the kitchen to put the bowls in the sink.
Mother did not throw the packet away.
In those days, if you cherished something you saved it.

The empty yellow packet stayed with us for many years.
Reminding us of how food ties us together.
With memories that always spring alive whenever we see it again.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The day I sat for the Boards.

It was definitely not a regular day.
In fact, the last three months after the pre-exam tests were not regular.

My mother was determined that I pass the Boards in flying colours.
With merit. Star marks. Letter marks ( above 80%in any subject got us a Letter).
And with the Assam Boards ( High School) being very very stringent on marking, 80 then was today's 95.

The three months therefore were all about preparation.
Mother was working and decided to take leave during and not before my exams.
She changed her mind later and took leave before.

She set question papers, did her research on the probable questions, not so probable questions and improbable questions.
Never left anything to chance.
Brought me papers and threads to stitch the papers exactly like it would be on the D Day.
Set the clock, and ensured that I completed the paper at least 20 minutes before time so that I had enough time left over for two rounds of revision.

So on the Day day, Mother and I were dropped off at T. C School in Guwahati, where my "seat" was, according to my roll number. They would mix up all the students across schools.

Before that, after my revisions since dawn, Mother made a special fish curry and rice.
Fish was supposed to make our brains sharper so she made sure she found time to shop the previous evening, cook it fresh that morning along with steaming hot rice.
She also put a bowl of water and a pot of rice at the front door.
It is superstition that if you leave the house seeing water and rice, it is a good omen.

Mother gave me a hug and a kiss, before escorting me to the room where I would sit.
Though she was not allowed in, she peered through the grimy windows to see where I was sitting and waved again.
I waved back and suddenly tears came into my eyes as she waved one last time and walked away.

My Mother meant the world to me.
With my Father gone two years ago, mother had to work hard to make a living.
And all I wanted was for her to smile.

And good marks, coming out on tops, made her smile. Unfailingly.
For days.

The bell rang.
Answer sheets handed out.
Question papers.
The writing.
The checking.
The thinking.

The months of preparation paid off.
My pen flew over the sheets.
Almost like it had a mind of its own.

And then the first day was over.
The bell rang.
The papers submitted.
Mother was waiting outside- had told her boss that she had to take a quick break to drop me home.

I rushed to her.
Excitedly told her I knew all the answers.
She had wrapped a chicken roll for me as a special treat from Feeds.

I shared half with her.

The Board results were out a few months later.
I did pass with flying colours.
And Star marks. And Letters.

Today, as I look back, I miss my Mother.
Her encouragement.
Her constant  push to me to make sure that I did not lose gold by winning that silver.

But I know that she is around.
In spirit.
Always making me rehearse for the tests Life makes us pass every day.
So that I win that gold.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Picnic Party

Picnics in Assam were a lot of fun.

Come December, and the sight of buses with  happy faces smiling and waving at the traffic would usher in the picnic season. Picnics are organised by schools, colleges, offices, neighborhoods, even large families.

The preparations start a few weeks earlier with the organizing committee doing a recce of the place, given the overflowing abundance of breathtaking spots by rivers and streams in nature blessed Assam. The menu would be agreed upon, cooks briefed, the mutton, chicken, vegetables, spices, eggs and snacks bought.

The day would start at dawn, with everyone piling into the buses at a particular pick up point. Big cooking utensils would be loaded into the bus, with bundles of firewood and sacks of coal, gas cylinders. Boxes bursting with food would be stacked in.

The bus ride would begin with everyone shouting a combined cry of joy. Some youngsters refused to sit, preferring to walk up and down, or stand balanced against a seat, taking the lead to start a song, while the rest of us joined in.

Oohs and aaahs would punch the air as the"picnic party" got off the buses and took in the beautiful picnic spot. The kids would rush towards the stream and the rocks, with the mothers asking them to be careful and also to come back for breakfast. The advance party would have arrived earlier, setting up tents, plastic chairs, carpets, the cooking area and also make shift toilets.

A voice on a microphone would welcome everyone  and talk about the things in store for the day. Usually it would be one of the organising committee member in charge of the activities. This would be followed breakfast- bread, butter, boiled eggs. And yes, bananas.

The cooks and their helpers would get going. The fires would be lit, the gas cylinders fixed to a burner. Some of the helpers would roll down the big saucepans and pots to the water side and give them a rinse. They would then light a diya, make their offerings and prayers to the deity and the cooking would begin. The peeling, the chopping, the sizzling of the mustard oil, and soon, the aroma engulfing the area like an unseen mist.

While the adventurous would set off to explore the hills and the woods, the games would begin. Tug of war and musical chairs a must. Mothers would rush to drag their children from the water and rocks to play the games, proudly clapping if their child would be the last one  grasping the chair firmly as the winner. The tug of war would sometimes be between the men and the women, or boys and girls and it would lead to lots of fun, comments, laughter. Snacks like fried fish, chips, fried brinjals in batter would do the rounds. With cold drinks and tea.

In the midst of this would be a couple of two in love, sitting on a distant rock together, feet paddling the water, creating their dreams of togetherness. Nature has a way of making love seem powerful.

Lunch would be ready around 2 p.m.
Banana leaf or paper plates, glasses lined up in front of folded bedsheets, and the hot food ladled out. Food never taste as good as it does in a picnic. The music would now be blaring. The men ( when I was young, don't remember women drinking in picnics unless what I thought was cola was actually spiked with rum) would be high  now, both drinks and the fun of the picnic making them sing, dance, laugh. Bihu songs would be played and people would soon start dancing to the beats, the hesitating ones would  be pulled by the rest into the circle. In the middle of the stillness of the forests and the water, the music and the fun would seem like one big concert of nature.

Soon , we would start feeling the chill in the air.
The shawls, sweaters, mufflers and coats would come out.
In the distance, we would see the cooks , the rest of the helpers having their food in their own circle, music playing from a player placed on a rock or a wood pile.

Finally, it would be time to board the bus again.
The mood would be strange.
Tired happiness, yet a sadness that this was over.

The journey back was always quiet.
Maybe an odd song or two.
But mostly everyone would doze off.
Or maybe we all wanted to be alone with our thoughts.

A few weeks later, the photographs would do the rounds.
We would make sure we got "copies", which would find their place of pride in the family album.

I miss the picnics.
After I left Assam, all the picnics I have been too are in resorts with waiters serving starters and a buffet table. And a DJ.
They are good. They are fun.
But to me, can never ever replace the streaming river gurgling over the rocks, the birds, the grass, the trees and the romance of the wild.